How to stay ahead in the giving game

The diplomacy of giving comes to the fore as the Russian prime minister sends the California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger a bronze bust of himself.

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It is a problem. What do you give the man who has everything, who runs the state of California, has held the moniker of Mr Universe, and has the (possibly fictional) ability to travel through time? Well, the Russian Federation of Body Builders spent many months discussing how best to mark its admiration for perhaps the most famous body-builder ever, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California. After much deliberation, they commissioned a new bronze sculpture as a gift for the star of the Terminator films.

But this wasn't any old sculpture. It wasn't even an artistic interpretation of Arnie in his halcyon days as a scantily-clad muscle man. No. The federation decided a bust of the Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin would be the perfect present. Can't wait for Schwarzenegger to smile politely and say, "Why, it's just what I've always wanted." But then, gifts to dignitaries and heads of state are something of a minefield - something Barack Obama is finding to his cost. Earlier this year, when Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, visited the White House, he carried with him a pen-holder carved from the oak timber of HMS Gannet, a vessel that conducted many anti-slavery missions off Africa in the 19th century.

He also wrapped up a framed commissioning paper of HMS Resolute, which came to symbolise Anglo-American goodwill when it was rescued by the US from icebergs. Thoughtful gifts, certainly. And what did Brown get? A box set of classic American DVDs - which, thanks to regional restrictions, didn't work in British players. It was so last-minute it hurt - you can almost hear the conversation over the White House breakfast table.

One wonders whether the Obamas ordered the Queen's present from Amazon at the same time to save on postage. Famously, the resources and minds of the most powerful couple in the world extended to buying her an iPod when they met in April. Admittedly they had made some effort: it was loaded with video footage of her visit to the States in 2007, and had many of her favourite songs from Broadway shows on it. But still: can you really imagine HM Queen Elizabeth II sitting down to sync her iPod to her MacBook before taking it out on a musical stroll with the Corgis? Although we would love to know if the Obamas had cheekily put some Queen - the band - on there-

We know a great deal about American presidents' gifts simply because legally, gifts worth more than $305 (Dh1,120) must be reported. They then remain the property of the government and end up being displayed in museums such as the Smithsonian - so Obama won't be keeping that ceremonial pen-holder to put on his own retirement mantelpiece. Which is why outwardly slightly weird gifts - both the Belgian and Danish prime ministers gave George W Bush embossed cycling clothing - actually make perfect sense. British politicians also have to declare gifts over a certain value, but may be allowed to keep them or buy them back from the state.

Of course, such gift-giving is as old as statehood itself. Kings and queens have brought bounty to each other's courts to show off not how generous they are, but how wealthy and therefore powerful they might be. In 1520, a meeting between Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France was laden with so much kingly bling, the site was swiftly dubbed the "Field of the Cloth of Gold" as they spent three lavish weeks trying to bond before falling out over a wrestling match. That 16th-century scene is repeated again and again as politicians and rulers try to curry favour and increase their influence with a simple - or not so simple - gift.

What's key is that it's never "just" a gift. So one wonders what the Russian Federation of Body Builders is really trying to say with its commissioning of a Putin bust. That well-built men make very good leaders? In which case, maybe this is a subtle hint, from one body-builder to another that one day, men of many muscles will rule the world.